Well, it’s official: As most observers had expected, the Obama administration is denying the Taiwanese government’s request to buy 66 new F-16s, instead offering retrofits that will upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet as a consolation prize.
I think I know why the administration is choosing this path. They worked hard to restore military-to-military contacts with the Chinese, a goal they achieved in January. If the F-16 sale went through, Beijing would almost certainly protest by cutting off mil-to-mil contacts (as the jargon goes) for at least a year, and the administration would lose the prize they’d just won.
The problem here is that if there’s going to be a contretemps with Beijing — and there will be sooner or later, as the Taiwan issue isn’t going away — this would have been an ideal time to get it out of the way, for reasons discussed in this space before. There’s some debate on how valuable mil-to-mil contacts are in any case (and, given that we’re talking about a category of activities that can include anything from meetings between generals to officers touring warships, the answer obviously depends on the specifics) but the leadership of the PLA is likely to change next year, so the project of cultivating mil-to-mil relations may have to start over anyway. A future president will have to deal with how to provide for Taiwan’s defenses in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, possibly after the F-16 line has shut down and the only options are more sophisticated planes that would anger the Mainland leadership even more, and possibly when the Chinese president is more apt to be confrontational than the soon-to-retire Hu Jintao is now. (Here’s a more detailed explanation of these considerations.)
Let’s hope that that future president can navigate this dilemma without getting anyone killed.